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Book, covers, and the politics of cover art

Let’s talk covers, bookcovers, that is. Before you get too excited, let me just warn you that if you travel down the traditional publishing path don’t expect to have much input, if any at all, when it comes to what your book’s cover will look like. You’ll be lucky if your publisher sends you a standard form asking your input on any cover elements and storyline blurbs. If you spend even a short time around published authors, it won’t be long before you hear the horrific tales of cover art gone bad. Unfortunately they’re all probably true.

A bad cover can kill a book. Readers are sensitive to cover designs. Men who read romance don’t want the covers to show–all those “clinch” poses and flowery die-cuts are not what they want to show to the world. Many women, including authors, are not happy having romance books that have covers showing the main characters in the traditional “clinched” pose. Years ago, bestselling romance author LaVryle Spencer campaigned to have her publishers change her covers and try the flower-style that is so prevalent today. When her publisher agreed to give the cover change a try, Spencer then used her book tour to ask her readers to write the publisher if they liked the change. Many did. Enough for a distinct change in cover design for all of her future books. Other publishers followed suit and we now see very different cover art for the more mainstream romance books displayed today.

Horror stories abound. One bestselling writer now laughs over the discovery of her three-armed heroine gracing one of her first books. What seemed like a cover disaster when first noticed has now become a treasured collectible to some. Authors bewail the covers that depict anything and everything but can’t seem to even get the character’s hair color correct let alone anything else. One well-known mystery writer had to suffer through a series of cover designs that didn’t reflect the core stories and probably pushed potential readers away. His main character is a sports agent who solves crime. The stories are mysteries. Yet the covers picked up on the sports element and featured baseballs, basketballs, and other sports elements so prominently that many potential readers were led to believe they were “sports books” with a limited audience rather than good mysteries often set in and around the sports world.

Bad artwork can be an ingredient leading to poor sales. A poor cover often deflects a potential pickup on the book stand as a buyer suddenly eyes a more attractive cover and chooses that book instead. At a time when an author should be excited about the release of their upcoming book, some wind up bewailing their book’s fate after receiving a cover sample or jpg file. Since authors usually see their covers long after the book has gone to print, it’s way beyond the point where any input or action can be of help. Some authors at some publishing houses are lucky enough to have some input after they’ve achieved awards and impressive book sales. One author sent a preliminary cover design out to see the reaction of readers to the predominately bright orange color. The results of that informal poll led to a change.

Little things can make or break a cover. I saw a book recently where the back cover was a dark reddish brown and the art director chose black for the font color. Dark on dark makes the text nearly impossible to read. The persons credited for the stirring quotes  are pretty much unreadable, the story blurb is difficult to follow.

I remember my co-author and I pretty much kept our fingers crossed and prayed until we finally saw the cover of our first book, Exploring Houston with Children. We were lucky. The art director produced a great eye-catching cover that definitely increased the sale potential dramatically. From the response we’ve received, our new cover (Exploring Texas History: Weekend Adventures) is a plus. Texas books can be tricky. There’s always the chance that the artwork will come out cartoon-like or over the top. New York doesn’t always “get” Texas.

Cover art often contains elements that signal the type of story to potential readers. For an interesting look at cover designs for science fiction, pulp fiction, wild west, detective stories and others that are primarily out of print, click on Judge a Book . . . by it’s Cover. A synopsis of the story with its main elements and the cover are displayed. For a discussion of the impact of a good cover and its use as a billboard for the book, click here. For a look at some bad covers, check out these “worst covers” as opposed to the winning ones. See if you agree.

I’m pleased with the cover designs for my young adult novels. Both covers are clean-looking and easy to read, and there is a similarity in design to suggest a subtle branding. The cover for Divided Loyalties is vivid, the design strong, and it is easily seen online and as part of a display on an end cap or if the book is faced out on the shelf. The native American elements of the flute and dreamcatcher are in the story and relate to one of the characters. I’ve recently received the final cover for Video Magic, which will be released at the end of summer. The cover color reflects envy, the emotion that is dealt with in the story. The book is a romance and the story won the national RWA Golden Heart award, so the gold heart is a layered symbol. What do you think?

My point with all this is that the next time you start to point out a problem with a author’s cover, think twice. First, they probably didn’t have much input. Second, the book’s out, and there’s nothing the author can do. If it’s that bad the author knows the cover is a problem and is just trying to make the best of it.

Did you know that the font size and placement of the author’s name tells a lot about the ranking of that author with their publisher and suggests a lot about their book sales and how long they’ve been publishing? Authors may not tell you, but many check their names on the covers as they accumulate more and more books on the bookstands. As the book sales increase, so does their name. The font size is enlarged. Oh happy day when the font size of the author’s name is the same size as the title. When the author’s name is placed ABOVE the title, well. . . that is a happy day, indeed. When the author’s name is placed above the title and the name is larger than the title, well, you get the picture.¬† On your next visit to the bookstore, check the large displays and see if you can figure out where the authors are on the publishing road map to fame and glory.

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